Runoff for US Senate will cost Georgia taxpayers millions of dollars

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Groups urge Georgia lawmakers to consider instant-runoff voting

The runoff for the U.S. Senate is expected to cost taxpayers over $10 million in the Atlanta area alone and many millions of dollars more across Georgia.

Critics of Georgia’s runoff system say it’s wasteful and unnecessary.

Georgia is one of two states, along with Louisiana, that require a runoff after a general election when no candidate wins a majority of votes cast. Mississippi will also begin holding runoffs as soon as next year.

Most other states decide winners based on whichever candidate gets the most votes, even if that’s less than 50% of ballots in races with votes split among multiple candidates. Some Georgia election organizations want to eliminate runoffs by adopting instant-runoff voting, in which voters would pick their second-choice candidates upfront in the general election rather than having to vote again in a runoff.

ExploreHow Georgia’s unique runoff system came to be

In Georgia’s general election, neither Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock nor Republican Herschel Walker received a majority because Libertarian Chase Oliver won 2% of the vote. Warnock got the most votes of any candidate in the race.

The runoff for the U.S. Senate two years ago cost $75 million across Georgia, according to a study by Kennesaw State University researchers funded by instant-runoff supporters. Taxpayers pay for runoffs through property taxes to their county governments, which fund local election operations.

This year, Fulton County budgeted up to $7 million for the runoff, while DeKalb and Gwinnett counties each estimated runoffs would cost about $1 million to pay for poll workers, temporary staff, voting location fees, ballot mailings and related expenses. Cobb County didn’t provide a cost estimate, but election officials said the county spent over $1.8 million in the 2020 runoffs.

Potential changes to runoff elections could be considered in next year’s legislative session.

State election officials are monitoring runoff costs and evaluating where improvements could be made, said Mike Hassinger, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office.

“We’re committed to the integrity of the process and improvements in both security and voter convenience, and will be examining any proposals in light of those principles,” Hassinger said.

Georgia last year introduced instant-runoff voting — a form of ranked-choice voting — for members of the military and overseas voters. For those voters who supported a Libertarian in the general election, their second choice candidate will receive their votes in a runoff between a Democrat and a Republican.

ExploreHow Georgia’s voting law works

Georgia is one of six states with instant runoffs for military and overseas voters, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Lawmakers could consider eliminating runoffs by instituting instant-runoff voting for all Georgia voters, said state Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Republican from Woodstock who supports the idea.

“When you talk with regular Georgians who aren’t super political, they’re just sick of the (campaign) commercials. They’re sick of all of this,” Cantrell said. “If our goal is for Georgians to be engaged in what’s going on politically, this is not the way to help. They’re just throwing their hands up.”

Turnout almost always declines in runoffs. Even in the high-interest runoffs for the U.S. Senate in 2020, turnout fell from 5 million in the general election to 4.5 million in the runoffs.

An organization called Better Ballot Georgia is collecting voter signatures through an online petition to urge state legislators to pass a bill that would require instant runoffs.

“Runoff elections are a lose-lose. They cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and result in dramatically lower turnout,” the group’s president, Daniel Baggerman, said in a statement. “Instant-runoff voting is faster, cheaper and a better way to run our elections.”